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Géomorphologie : Relief, Processus, Environnement


revue en ligne : http://geomorphologie.revues.org/
vol. 22, n° 3 (2016), p. 305-324
Mise en ligne le 05 octobre 2016 sur Revues.org
URL : http://geomorphologie.revues.org/11479
DOI:10.4000/geomorphologie.11479

morphologie RELIEF, PROCESSUS, ENVIRONNEMENT © 2016 GFG Editions - Tous droits réservés
http://edytem.univ-savoie.fr/gfg/

Construction and deflation of irrigation soils from the Pharaonic to the Roman period at
Amheida (Trimithis), Dakhla Depression, Egyptian Western Desert
Construction et destruction par déflation d’anthrosols des périodes pharaonique à romaine
à Amheida (Ttimithis), oasis de Dakhla, Désert occidental égyptien
Jean-Paul Bravard*a, Ashraf Mostafab, Paola Davolic, Katherine A. Adelsbergerd, Pascale Ballete, Romain Garcierf,
Lucio Calcagnileg, Gianluca Quartag
a
Université Lumière-Lyon 2, Département de Géographie – Campus Portes des Alpes, 5 av. Pierre Mendes France, 69676 Bron Cedex, France.
b
University of Assiut, Department of Geography – 71515 Assiut, Arab Republic of Egypt.
c
University of Salento, Department of Humanities – Piazza Tancredi, n7 – 73100 Lecce, Italy.
d
Knox College, Department of Environmental Studies – Galesburg, Illinois, USA.
e
Université de Poitiers, UFR Sciences Humaines et Arts – 15, rue de l'Hôtel Dieu – 86073 Poitiers Cedex 9, France.
f
Université de Lyon, Ecole Normale Supérieure, Département de Géographie – 46 allée d'Italie, 69007 Lyon, France.
g
University of Salento, CEDAD – Via per Arnesano, 73100 - Lecce, Italy.

ABSTRACT
Most of the environmental studies performed in the Western Desert of Egypt have dealt with climate change since the
Late Pleistocene, notably with the humid Holocene (10000 to 4500 cal. BC) and following desertification. In the last dry
period of the Holocene, human societies had to cope with changing environments and they selected refuges where water
was permanently available. Some of the archaeological investigations in the Western Desert have studied the available
water resources and the role of irrigation in the building of soils. In some cases, they have explained the abandonment
of sites by the progressive depletion of water resources. This paper focuses on the site of Amheida (the Roman Trimithis)
located in the Dakhla depression in the Western Desert of Egypt. It is an elongated area located south of a limestone
plateau, where spring mounds provided abundant water during the period of occupation, which lasted from the Old
Kingdom (2700 cal. BC) to the Late Roman period (end of the 4th century AD). Trimithis was abandoned after a long
period of prosperity. The reasons for its abandonment, as well as that of other settlements in the oasis in the same period,
have not been clarified yet. Geoarchaeological surveys carried out in 2011 and 2013 point to several phases including 1)
the use of a spring mound during part of the Pharaonic period (2700 to 1069 cal. BC) and the formation of irrigation soils
in the vicinity of spring mounds from the Late Pharaonic times (712 to 332 BC) to the beginning of the Roman period
(30 BC); 2) the degradation of these soils by wind deflation in the irrigated perimeter during the early Roman period; 3)
a recovery until the 3rd century AD, made possible by the digging of wells, before; 4) a severe phase of deflation and sand
drifting which destroyed the irrigation soils and forced farmers to till the poorly irrigated bedrock.The Trimithis case
exemplifies the way former societies could cope with harsh constraints (aridity, drifting sand and wind erosion) as long as
water was plentiful. Water scarcity due to the progressive depletion of groundwater resources was probably compensated
by an increase in human labour until thresholds were crossed, recovery being impossible due to water scarcity. A model
summarizes the main findings of this study.
Keywords: Western Desert of Egypt, Dakhla oasis, Ahmeida-Trimithis, geoarchaeology, irrigation soils, deflation, resilience.

RÉSUMÉ
La plupart des études qui ont été réalisées dans le Désert occidental égyptien traitent du changement climatique depuis la
fin du Pléistocène, notamment de l’Holocène humide (10 000-4500 BC) et des modalités de la désertification. Pendant le
deuxième Holocène aride, les sociétés humaines ont dû s’adapter à des environnements instables et choisir des refuges où
l’eau était en permanence disponible. Une partie des recherches archéologiques réalisées dans le désert occidental ont pris en
compte les ressources en eau disponibles et la place de l’irrigation dans la construction de certains sols (anthrosols). Elles ont
INFORMATION SUR L’ARTICLE
aussi abordé la question de l’abandon de certains sites par l’épuisement progressif de la ressource en eau. Cet article se focalise
Reçu le 14 juillet 2015 sur Amheida (la Trimithis romaine) localisée dans la Dépression de Dakhla et qui fut occupée de la basse époque (712-
Reçu sous sa forme révisée le 27 avril 2016 332 BC) à la fin de la période romaine (fin du IVe siècle AD). Cette oasis est localisée au sud du plateau calcaire libyen ; des
Définitivement accepté le 16 mai 2016 sources artésiennes ont fourni une eau abondante pendant la période d’occupation qui a duré de l’Ancien Empire (2700 cal.
BC) à la fin de l’Empire romain (fin du IVe siècle AD). Trimithis a été abandonnée après une longue période de prospérité. Les
raisons de l’abandon de ce site, comme d’autres dans la Dépression de Dakhla, n’ont pas encore été élucidées. Des recherches
géoarchéologiques réalisées en 2011 et 2013 ont mis en évidence plusieurs phases : 1) l’utilisation de sources artésiennes
*Auteur correspondant. Tel: +33 4 78 89 59 00 pendant l’Ancien Empire (2700 à 1069 BC) et la formation d’anthrosols liée à l’irrigation de la Basse époque au début de
Courriels : la période romaine (30 BC) ; 2) la dégradation de ces sols par la déflation éolienne au début de la période romaine ; 3) une
jean-paul.bravard@orange.fr (J.-P. Bravard)
ashraffetooh74@yahoo.com (A. Mostafa)
restauration partielle du périmètre irrigué avant la fin du IIIe siècle AD ; 4) une phase de déflation sévère qui a achevé l’érosion
paola.davoli@unisalento.it (P. Davoli) des sols et forcé les agriculteurs à cultiver sur le substrat schisteux. L’étude de Trimithis montre comment les sociétés antiques
kadelsbe@knox.edu (K.A. Adelsberger) ont pu composer avec de fortes contraintes environnementales en milieu désertique, pour autant que l’eau était disponible
pascale_ballet@yahoo.fr (P. Ballet) en abondance. Cela s’est sans doute fait au prix d’un travail intense mais le déclin des ressources a empêché l’adaptation des
romain.garcier@ens-lyon.fr (R. Garcier) sociétés et a conduit à un abandon rapide et inéluctable. Un modèle résume les principaux apports de cette étude.
lucio.calcagnile@unisalento.it (L. Calcagnile)
gianluca.quarta@unisalento.it (G. Quarta) Mots clés : désert occidental égyptien, oasis de Dakhla, Ahmeida-Trimithis, géoarchéologie, anthrosols, déflation, résilience.
Jean-Paul Bravard et al.

1. Introduction. Scope of the study water for irrigation in one habitable part of the Deir-el-Hagar area
in the Dakhla depression since the onset of agricultural practices.
Environmental investigations in the Western Desert of Egypt The study builds upon previous research undertaken as early as
have focused mainly on climate change since the Late Pleistocene, the late 1970s, notably by Brooks (2006) and Brookes (1983; 1989a;
noting sparse human occupation during the humid Holocene 1989b; 1993) for the Dakhla Oasis Project (D.O.P.). The oldest
(from 8000 to 6500 cal. BC), and identifying the modalities of recorded ages are from before 1400 cal. BC (Haynes, 1983, cited
desertification between 6500 and 4000 cal. BC (Haynes, 2001, and by Brookes, 1993). The Roman period and more recent settlements
others, see below). During this period, human societies had to cope display sediments, several metres thick, accreted in association
with changing environments and therefore selected refuges where with irrigated agriculture on various substratum. These sediments
water was permanently available (Kuper and Kröpelin, 2006). In are associated with “irrigation channels, defunct well-heads and
the last dry period of the Holocene, permanent human occupation enclosed potsherds” (Brookes, 1989a; 1993).
was restricted to sites presently named oases. Though the climate The Amheida archaeological site (the Roman Trimithis) stands
is generally thought to have been stable since 4000 cal. BC, limited in the NW part of the Dakhla depression (fig. 1-2), in an oblong
climate pulsations may have occurred in a context of slowly and north-south oriented barren area located SSW of El-Qasr
decreasing groundwater resources. The scope of this environmental (25°39 N, 28°52’ E) (fig. 3). Archaeology has proven that the urban
study is to document, using geoarchaeological methods, the use of site was occupied between the Old Kingdom (2700 cal. BC) and

By Bruno Bazzani, based on SRTM GDEM data by NASA/JPL/NIMA.

Fig. 1 – Map of Egypt. Fig. 1 – Carte de l’Egypte.

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Construction and deflation of irrigation soils

the end of the 4th century AD. The present climate is characterised yardangs around the archaeological site indicates that they could
by hyperaridity with average rainfall of less than 5 mm per year also have been composed of irrigation soils and aeolian sand, and
(Egyptian Meteorological Authority, 1996). The oasis landscape is a that their almost complete destruction occurred after a phase
slowly changing patchwork formed by belts of green cultivated land of historical occupation, as proposed by Brookes (1993). The
and north-south oriented dunes. Some of the present barren areas, objective of this study is to document the complex history of the
such as Trimithis, have barchans and smaller dunes, shifting at an yardangs, as exemplified by the ongoing el-Deir study in the nearby
average velocity of about 7 meters per year (observed by Fabrizio Kharga Oasis (Tallet et al., 2011; Tallet et al., 2013; Bravard et al.,
Pavia through topographic surveys during the last 10 years in 2016). This objective includes dating sediment layers through
Amheida), thus encroaching upon irrigated fields, roads and ceramics and radiocarbon samples, as well as understanding their
villages. The landscape is therefore highly variable according to construction and destruction. The datation with the ceramics is
the movements of the dunes and water availability. It is necessary another way to precise chronology, specially when this artefact is
to have these dynamics in mind when studying past landscapes in a sufficient quantity to confirm the time of the occupation in the
and any attempt to infer past conditions from present landscapes irrigation structure. It is of course to date by the different criterias
requires great caution. according to the ceramologist's classification. At this stage of the
The present study deals mainly with the hypothesis that irrigation survey, the purpose was not to study the geochemistry and the
soils existed during the Antiquity around the Trimithis urban micromorphology of the soils. These analyses are planned in the
site. This study is geoarchaeologically oriented and was carried future to the condition that their implementation becomes possible.
out in close collaboration with Amheida’s archaeological team.
The objective of the present work originated with a geological 2. Regional setting
survey undertaken by one of the authors and reoriented towards
geoarchaeology in 2011. Field surveys revealed a series of north- The geology of the Dakhla depression is composed of gently (~0.5°)
south oriented and 2 to 3 metres high yardangs (elongated buttes northward-dipping Tertiary and Cretaceous sedimentary units with
sculpted by deflation in soft material), lying over low areas of synclinal and anticlinal NE-SW trending folds and minor faulting
Quseir (Mût) red shale extending south of Trimithis (fig. 4). These (Hermina, 1990; Brookes, 1993). To the north of the Depression, the
yardangs could be the eroded remnants of a former flat Holocene Eocene Garra and Kurkur Fm. limestones form a resistant cap for the
playa composed of interconnecting basins, over which some low Libyan Plateau, where variable chert content within the limestone
hills protruded. However, the high artefact content within the beds led to the development of yardangs indicating northerly

By Bruno Bazzani, satellite image: Landsat 7, 2001.

Fig. 2 – Map of the Dakhla Depression Fig. 2 – Carte de la dépression de Dakhla.

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Jean-Paul Bravard et al.

winds in this region (Brookes, 2001). These resistant Thebes Group found as erosional remnants within the lower portions of the basin
limestones protect a series of less resistant units that form the scarp (Frizano, 1996; Kleindienst et al., 1999; Kieniewicz and Smith,
along the southern edge of the Libyan Plateau, including Dakhla 2009; Adelsberger and Smith, 2010), representing both surface and
Fm. shales and Duwi Fm. phosphorites (fig. 5A). groundwater deposition within areas of low topography during
The floor of the oasis consists of Mût (Quseir) Fm. mudstone to humid periods of the Pleistocene (McKenzie, 1993; Szabo et al.,
the north and a lowermost unit of Taref Fm. sandstone, which is 1995; Kieniewicz and Smith, 2007; Maxwell et al., 2010; Smith,
exposed primarily along the southern margin of the depression or 2012). Unlike the nearby Kharga Depression (Smith et al., 2004a;
where anticlinal folds and faults have led to upthrust of the Taref Smith et al., 2004b; Smith et al., 2007), Dakhla contains no evidence
and subsequent weathering of overlying Mût Fm. shale (Hermina, of plateau-margin springs and associated tufa formation. However,
1990; Churcher et al., 1999; Kleindienst et al., 1999) (fig. 5B). the carbonate-rich nature of the lacustrine deposits found within
These bedrock structures served as topographic controls for later the Dakhla depression indicates periods of surface-water runoff
Pleistocene and Holocene basinal deposition during more humid from the Libyan Plateau, as no other source of carbonate is found
periods and associated surface water accumulation (Brookes, 1993; within the Dakhla region (Kieniewicz and Smith, 2009).
Churcher et al., 1999; Kleindienst et al., 1999) (fig. 5A). Within In contrast to the carbonate-rich Pleistocene lake deposits
the depression proper, lacustrine and paludal sediments can be found in Dakhla, iron-cemented paludal deposits are the result of

By Bruno Bazzani, satellite image: Ikonos by Digitalglobe, 2001.

Fig. 3 – Map of Amheida Fig. 3 – Carte d’Amheida.

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Construction and deflation of irrigation soils

Plan by Bruno Bazzani; satellite image: Ikonos by Digitalglobe, 2001.

Fig. 4 – Map of the NYU excavations at Amheida and geomorphic features Fig.  4 – Carte des fouilles archéologiques menées par la NYU à Amheida
described in this paper around the city of Trimithis et éléments géomorphologiques décrits dans cet article autour de la cité de
Trimithis

groundwater discharge from the iron-rich Taref Fm. sandstone, a in its vicinity (fig. 5B). The structural setting of this portion of the
part of the Nubian Aquifer and therefore the local aquifer for the depression may therefore be responsible for water availability at
Dakhla region (Brookes, 1993; Sultan et al., 1997). Resistant iron- Amheida during periods of occupation throughout the Holocene.
cemented units form spring mounds composed of near-vent and The climate of the “Humid Holocene” combined summer
spring-vent sediments (Adelsberger and Smith, 2010) that have thus monsoonal rains, some storms brought by the Mediterranean
far been dated only via archaeological inclusions from the Middle Westerlies and the active functioning of spring mounds. Recent
Paleolithic (Wendorf and Schild, 1980), indicating Pleistocene studies demonstrated the influence of early Holocene hydro-
spring activation that was likely coeval with lake formation in the climatic changes on the human occupation of the Western Desert
Dakhla Depression (Adelsberger and Smith, 2010). of Egypt (Haynes, 2001; Hoelzmann et al., 2001; Bubenzer and
Just as bedrock topography provided a control for surface water Riemer, 2007; Kindermann and Bubenzer, 2007; Kröpelin and
accumulation in Dakhla, the location and nature of bedrock folding Kuper, 2007). Artesian waters and associated mineral precipitations
determined the location of spring activity. The Mût Fm. shale explain the deposition of lacustrine and playa deposits fed by runoff
serves as a confining layer for the underlying Taref Fm. aquifer during the wet early Holocene in the plain which extends to the
units, leading to limited spring activity in the northern part of the foothills of the northern escarpment of the Dakhla depression. In
Depression where the Mût Fm. is thick and the Taref Fm. is not found the area of Northern Africa presently covered by deserts, current
close to the surface (fig. 5A). Instead, spring mounds are found arid weather conditions progressively set in after 5300 BC, making
primarily in the southern portion of the depression, where the Mût the forms and densities of human occupation dependent upon the
Fm. is thin or comes into contact with the Taref Fm. Spring mounds availability of non-meteoric water. During the mid-Holocene phase
are also found near the anticlinal fold lines of bedrock structures in of “regionalization” (5300 to 3500 BC), human groups retreated
the northern part of the depression, where faulting and thinning of from desiccating regions into ecological niches, before the late
the overlying Mût Fm. allowed for spring development (Adelsberger Holocene “marginalization” phase dated 3500 to 1500 BC (Kuper
and Smith, 2010). Although spring mounds are not as widespread and Kröpelin, 2006). The change from the African Humid Period
near the site of Amheida as they are along the Tawil Anticline to the (de Menocal, 2001) to present arid conditions has been considered
east, Amheida lies along the western limb of the Budkhulu Anticline an abrupt event (Alley et al., 2003), a gradual linear process (Kuper
and close to its associated faulting. The site is therefore subject to and Kröpelin, 2006) or a progressive decline which lasted 2500 years
the same bedrock controls over potential groundwater discharge due to complex feedbacks between the changing biogeophysical

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Jean-Paul Bravard et al.

Fig. 5 – Geological sketch of the Dakhla Oasis. Fig. 5 – Schéma géologique de l’Oasis de Dakhla.
A. North to south geologic cross-section of the Dakhla Oasis (by Adelsberger A. Coupe géologique Nord-Sud à travers l’oasis de Dakhla (Adelsberger d’après
according to Churcher, 1999), illustrating stratigraphy exposed at the surface along Churcher, 1999), montrant les couches exposées en surface depuis l’escarpement
the escarpment to the floor of the oasis to the south. Taref Fm. is exposed to the south, jusqu’au plancher de l’oasis au Sud. La formation de Taref, au Sud, est souvent liée à des
often due to localized faulting as well as thinning of the overlying Mut Formation. failles locales et à l’amincissement de la Formation de Mut qui la surmonte. Les unités
Oasis units are not to scale. B.  Surface geology of the Dakhla Oasis according to de l’oasis ne sont pas à l’échelle. B. Géologie superficielle d’après Adelsberger et Smith
Adelsberger and Smith (2010). Taref Fm. to the south is exposed in part due to (2010). La Formation de Taref au Sud est exposée en partie à cause du soulèvement et
uplift and faulting associated with anticlinal structures, creating areas of significant de failles associés à des structures anticlinales, créant des secteurs de buttes à venues
spring mound formation (black dots). A - A’ indicates a possible cross-sectional artésiennes (points noirs). A-A’ figure une coupe possible décrite en 5A, mais une
area illustrated in part A, though a similar section can be described in any N-S line coupe analogue peut être décrite sur tout transect N-S entre le Plateau au nord et les
between the Plateau to the north and the Taref Fm. outcrop to the south. The area near affleurements de la Formation de Taref au sud. Le secteur situé au NO d’Amheida n’est
Amheida to the NW is not rich in spring mounds compared to other areas of the oasis, pas riche en sources artésiennes par rapport à d’autres secteurs de l’oasis, mais il est
but it is has structural characteristics similar to other areas of significant groundwater localisé dans des conditions structurales semblables à celles d’autres secteurs à débit
discharge in the past. souterrain significatif dans le passé.

climate and the non-linear response of vegetation (Kröpelin et al., Izdebski et al. (2015) consider that the Levant and northern Sinai
2008). In their study of the Tanezruft, Cremaschi and Zerboni experienced a wetter phase between 200 AD at the latest and 350 AD
(2010) agreed with this model of landscape change, the most recent before a drier phase between 350 and 470 AD. In the Hadramawt
Fezzan sites being related to a higher degree of wetness. In Dakhla (Yemen) several phases were documented at 4.0-3.9 to 2.8-2.7 ka BP,
and other desert depressions such as Kharga, the availability of at 2.65-2.15 ka BP (concentrated rainfalls) and possibly at 2 ka BP.
groundwater through active spring mounds enabled populations The pluvial periods in this area of southern Arabia have been
to adapt and even thrive under intensifying desert conditions hypothetically related to southward switches of cyclonic winter
(Caton-Thompson and Gardner, 1932; Embabi, 2004). However, rainfalls originating from Mediterranean systems (Berger et al.,
recent studies have revealed that the picture may be more complex 2012). Mediterranean cyclonic rainfalls could explain the 2500 cal.
with both minor climatic fluctuations and a diversified regional BC (end of the 4th dynasty) floods described by Butzer et al. (2013) in
pattern. For instance, climate fluctuations have been documented the Lost City of the Pyramid at Giza (10 floods recorded in 45 years
in different Negev cave environments (Bar-Matthews and Ayalon, with 200 to 300 mm rainfall events every 4 years) as well as flash
2011) with short wet spells during the 1st century AD and ca 500 AD floods recorded in the el-Deir oasis and the Kharga depression,
within a longer phase of dry periods and droughts during the between the 2nd and early 4th century AD (Bravard et al.,2016. See
Hellenistic-Roman and Byzantine periods (Ackermann et al., 2014). complete ref. at the end of the paper). However, floods described

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Construction and deflation of irrigation soils

in the Red Sea Hills, in eastern Sudan, 2500 years ago, have been and wooden architectonic elements from older architecture to be
attributed to short-lived northward pulses of the Indian Ocean reused for new buildings. Similar activity was observed at Ayn Asil,
Monsoon (Mawson and Williams, 1984). an ancient settlement east of the oasis (fig. 2), and contributed to
Holocene spring activation, or possibly reactivation, is indicated the destruction of the upper stratigraphy together with erosional
by residual spring sediment containing ceramics as well as by the phenomena (Soukiassian et al., 1990, p. 347).
preservation of irrigation canals leading away from extinct spring According to the pottery and the archaeological data collected
mounds in some areas of the depression (Adelsberger, submitted). (Davoli and Kaper, 2006), the buildings visible on the surface of
Groundwater availability outside of periods of humid climate the site belong mainly to the 4th century AD. Pottery and objects
was therefore likely in Dakhla and may have been continuous from earlier periods, found all over the area, point to the presence
throughout the Holocene. Satellite imagery enabled Zaghloul et al. of a settlement from at least the Old Kingdom onwards. The older
(2013) to document irrigation canals dating back to Antiquity. The settlement was possibly located in the centre of the archaeological
broad category of Holocene deposits includes “irrigation soils” area where, after centuries of stratification, a real kom or tell (hill)
identified by Haynes (1983) and Brookes (1989a). A subcategory progressively rose over an uneven topography shaped by wind
of Holocene deposits was defined as “anthropogenic irrigation erosion and sand accumulation. At present it is a central hill on
sediment” (Brookes, 1990). Most of the rolled and drifted wind- top of which the temple of Thoth was built in the 1st century AD
blown particles were trapped by vegetation and local wetness (labelled Area 4, fig. 4).
(Haynes, 1983, in Brookes, 1989a). Such soils, found in the vicinity The wide barren area south of the city is characterized by the
of springs or wells, may cover vast expanses of land. The present presence of shale hills with tombs and spring mounds, one of
resistance of irrigation soils to deflation is low because they include which is of impressive dimensions (point AM 25, fig. 4). Potsherds
blown sand trapped by former vegetation. When exposed to drier included in the mud layers of a channel draining a spring mound
conditions (linked to the dwindling of irrigation water), irrigation suggest a long period of activity for the spring, possibly with some
soils are easily deflated and sculpted by the wind into yardangs. artificial reactivation. Given the deflation, it is extremely difficult to
Irrigation soils, preserved in yardangs, constitute a precious source say when the flat low areas were covered by soil and crops. However,
of information on past agricultural practices and on the resources of a pigeon house was built in the 4th century AD at the north border
water and food available to oasian populations. of the cemetery, presumably near a farmhouse.

3. The ancient city of Trimithis 4. Material and methods

During the Roman period, the settlement was named Trimithis The present study is a geomorphic and chronological survey
and became a polis at the end of the 3rd century AD, but an earlier performed inside and around the urban tell of Trimithis, 20
date is also possible (Bagnall et al., 2006; Davoli, 2012; Bagnall et al., to 30 metres high, in order to provide new information on the
2016). The visible buildings, mainly built with mud bricks, spread hypothetical agricultural area surrounding the tell during its
over an area of about 700 x 650 m (roughly 45 ha) forming an open occupation. Due to the dominant N-S wind, deflation has destroyed
settlement, without defensive or perimeter walls. The city certainly most of the playa-like deposits which formerly covered the area
flourished during the Imperial Roman period (1st-3rd century AD) as demonstrated by their 2 to 3 metres high scattered relicts.
and was abandoned toward the end of the 4th century AD (fig. 4). Consequently, most of the surveyed area displays barren surfaces
The cemeteries spread for 1.5 km east and south of the settlement eroded into shale bedrock with some man-made features (irrigation
and hosted different kinds of tombs from different periods. canals) and artefacts (sherds) dating from the Antiquity to the
The geomorphological study of the Amheida area started in 2006 Arabic period, some of them being recent. Another reason limiting
with the documentation of the present landscape by the Amheida research is related to recent dune shifting, which masks part of the
project team directed by Roger Bagnall, a project launched by yardangs and exhumes landforms (fig. 6).
Columbia University in 2001 and organised with New York
University from 2008 onwards. The topographic survey of the
visible buildings (already started in 2001) was flanked by a survey of
the main natural features, such as sand dunes, spring mounds and
yardangs, and by other artificial features such as channels and areas
covered by potsherds. The observation of the denuded geological
strata together with the archaeological remains suggested a deep
change in the ancient landscape due to deflation. In fact, some
graves were found completely exposed among residual mounds
in the flat plain and cut by later channels running SE of a mud-
brick pyramid located in the East cemetery, close to the Roman
settlement. These graves probably date to the Old Kingdom (2613 to
2181 cal. BC) and the skeletons deposited at the bottom of the burial
sites are now completely exposed and badly eroded. Harsh deflation
is also evident on top of the temple hill, where it has been calculated
that at least 1.5 m of stratigraphy has been lost, leaving on top the
Second Intermediate Period deposits. The New Kingdom (1550 to
Photo. J.-P. Bravard.
1069 cal. BC), Late Period (747 to 332 BC) and the Roman Period are
well documented by pottery, ostraka and other artefacts, including Fig. 6 – Photo of the Western Roman necropleis and eroded area south of
blocks from temples, but the stratified deposits have disappeared Trimithis.
completely. Human activities are also responsible for some of these Fig. 6 – Photo de la nécropole romaine ouest et du secteur érodé au sud de
destructions, such as sebbakh gathering and the recovery of stone Trimithis.

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Jean-Paul Bravard et al.

The area studied in this article is not as large as the surveyed area been “collected from older cultural waste and spread on fields, either
and is located mainly south of the Amheida tell (fig. 6), an area well to improve tilth and to inhibit sand accumulation by enhancing
protected from deflation. These conditions have allowed for the impact-induced wind transport across a rougher surface”. That
preservation of a few relict yardangs displaying a limited number of is the reason why we privileged potsherds sampled in the cross-
natural sections (located on Figure 4). In the future, trenching and sections themselves or on top of spring mounds or yardangs.
frequent surveys will make it possible to study additional sections, Micro-charcoal were sieved and sorted in refreshed cross-
notably across large spring mounds, 2 to 5 metres high, which sections of the dunes and yardangs, wherever it was possible, and
are well preserved. Other key landforms and features relevant for were positioned in the cross sections. Eleven micro-charcoals were
a geoarchaeological study (former spring mounds, wells dug into sampled in 6 sites (tab. 1, 2) and sent to be radiocarbon dated by AMS
the substratum) were positioned using hand-held GPS devices and (Accelerator Mass Spectrometry) at the CEDAD (Centre for Dating
incorporated into the overall Amheida site map using a geographic and Diagnostics), University of Salento, Lecce, Italy. The charcoals
information system (GIS). Post-deflation irrigation canals are too were not determined. Some samples could not be dated because they
narrow to be mapped using aerial pictures and segments of canals on did not yield enough purified material to allow accurate dating.
top of yardangs cannot be traced using this source of information.
Cross-sections were described for eight yardangs and three spring 5. Results
mounds and wells (tab. 1, fig. 4, 7). They were measured using a
Jacob staff and Abney level when necessary, or with a measuring 5.1. The dune-soil complex
tape for smaller sections. The elevations of sections were measured
with a total station. 5.1.1. General considerations
The survey originally intended to set a preliminary chronology
of the yardang sedimentary sequences with the hypothesis that As presented above, the floor of the Amheida area consists of
they could derive from the Humid Holocene and/or from more reddish Mût (Quseir) Fm shale. This substratum was eroded by
recent cultivation practices including irrigation. Potsherds were aeolian and water-related processes during the Pleistocene and
used for determining the phases of occupation, notably for the parts of the Holocene. This evolution resulted in a smooth, hilly
Ptolemaic and Roman periods, given that ceramic typologies topography isolating small independent or poorly interconnected,
provide more precise results than radiocarbon dating. A criterion shallow basins. Present mounds of red shale are in some cases
for the delineation of antique irrigated areas and irrigation soils is protected from deflation by iron-rich top strata. Lying upon the
the present concentration of ceramics inside the deposits and on basin floor, a few yardangs are the relicts of a former discontinuous
the ground, selective wind erosion having destroyed the irrigation cover of playa-like deposits. Yardangs are sparse and scattered due to
soils and the top of the altered Mût Formation. The most ancient their destruction by the wind and to large shifting dunes. Given the
ceramics date from the oldest period of development. In contrast, presence of potsherds from the base to the top of these formations, it
land plots presently deprived of ceramics were assumed to have was initially speculated that the deposits might belong to the second
no irrigated fields. In the past (before their erosion by deflation), half of the Holocene and possibly originate from irrigation practices
these nearby areas were probably higher than the irrigated areas (even if in some places, scattered undefined Neolithic potsherds
and were thus deprived of water. Areas that were developed or that may be found in older playa deposits). This is the reason why
remained undeveloped during Antiquity may be mapped using this exposed cross-sections of yardangs, herein called “sequences”, were
criterion. However, following the suggestion by Brookes (1989a), we systematically explored in order to understand and date possible
acknowledge that the presence of potsherds on the ground may have historical features and processes.

Drawn by S. Gaillot.

Fig. 7 – Stratigraphies of the main cross-sections surveyed at Amheida Fig. 7 – Stratigraphies des principales coupes observées à Amheida.

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Tab. 1 – Surveyed and studied landforms. Tab. 1 – Formes décrites et étudiées.

Radiocarbon Drifted sand, Shale blocks from


Landforms N° in fig. 4 Irrigation soil
dates dunes well digging
GS001 4 + +
AM72 1 +
AM70 1 +
Yardangs in playa-
AM69 +
like deposits
AM68 +
AM66-67 1 +
AM65 +
AM25 +
Spring mounds, wells GS022 1 + + +
AM71 + +
Thrimithis pottery
GS011 2 + +
workshops

Basic sedimentary units visible in the yardangs sequences include 5.1.2. Sequence GS001
i) sandy grey layers defined as soils, ii) consolidated or loose
wind-blown sand with dune facies and iii) small blocks of red From bottom to top, the sequence GS001 displays the following
shale forming artificial mounds topping the deposits (tab. 1). The stratigraphic units (fig. 4, 8):
distinction between these units was based on stratigraphic features, The basal complex is composed of a 1.8 metres thick layer of
cohesiveness, texture, color and ceramic richness. The description consolidated sand alternating with thin layers of sand and shale
and delineation of these units in cross-sections made possible deposited by the wind and possibly by water, as well as soils. Shale
a stratified sampling of charcoal in order to date the processes particles (from silt to aggregates) originate from the Mût Formation,
responsible for their deposition. The yardang sequences will be the weathered shale mounds towering over the irrigation soils
presented first, followed by the spring mounds sequences and having been eroded by the wind and possibly by runoff. The top
overlaying units of sand and reworked shale. of the basal complex displays gypsum and nodules of secondary

Photo. J.-P. Bravard.


Fig. 8 – Yardang GS001. Fig. 8 – Yardang GS001.
A. Photo of a N-S cross section of yardang GS001. B. N-S cross-section of yardang A. Photo de la stratigraphie N-S du yardang GS001. B. Coupe stratigraphique N-S du
GS001. yardang GS001.

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Jean-Paul Bravard et al.

carbonates probably corresponding to evaporation of irrigation horizontally bedded sand and silts without any artefacts, inter-
waters. Three cohesive soils interstratified in these deposits, rich layered with oblique layers of sand dipping to the south and
in iron and manganese oxides, ceramics and ashes, shells and probably deposited by the wind on the lee face of a dune pushed by
charcoals have been respectively dated to 980 to 790 ca. BC (sample the northern wind (tab. 3). The summit of this unit, capping and
Cha 1, LTL-8364), 840 to 590 ca. BC (sample Cha 6, LTL‑8369), protecting the yardang, is a massive grey soil stained by manganese
and 800 to 520 ca. BC (sample Cha 3, LTL‑8366) (tab. 2). They are and micro-particles of charcoal. Potsherds, concentrated by
separated by sand sheets dipping to the South. The top of the basal deflation from a former upper unit, also contribute to protecting
complex displays a discontinuous surface due to wind erosion. this unit. Cha 2 (tab. 2), sampled at a depth of 20 cm below the
Above these deposits, a 1.50 metres thick unit is composed of surface, was dated from 390 to 110 cal. BC (Cha 2, LTL-8365). The

Tab. 2 – List of radiocarbon dates. Tab. 2 – Liste des dates radiocarbone.

GPS
# & laboratory Age cal. Age cal.
Positioning Nature of Age 14C
reference of Date 1 sigma 2 sigma
UTM zone 35 N sample BP
sample (68.2 %) (95.4 %)
(datum WGS84)

CHA10/AM66 2840336 N 1050-890 BC


2011 Charcoal 2805 ± 34 1010-910 BC
LTL-8373A 688034 E 880-840 BC

CHA1/GS001 2839882 N
2011 Charcoal 2710 ± 55 910-810 BC 980-790 BC
LTL-8364A 687420 E
840-740 BC
CHA6/GS001 E 2839882 N
2011 Charcoal 2599 ± 36 810-770 BC 690-660 BC
LTL-8369A 687420 E
640-590 BC
790-740 BC
CHA3 /GS001 SE 2839882 N
2011 Charcoal 2527 ± 40 690-660 BC 800-520 BC
LTL-8366A 687420 E
650-550 BC
CHA5/GS022 E 2839929 N 410-350 BC 510-340 BC
2011 Charcoal 2315 ± 42
LTL-8368A 687479 E 280-230 BC 310-200 BC

CHA15/AM72 2839945 N 370-340 BC


2011 Charcoal 2220 ± 33 390-200 BC
LTL-8375A 687998 E 310-200 BC

CHA2/GS001 2839882 N 360-280 BC 390-160 BC


2011 Charcoal 2186 ± 40
LTL-8365A 687420 E 260-190 BC 140-110 BC

CHA4/GS022 E 2839929 N 350-320 BC


2011 Charcoal 2101 ± 35 180-50 BC
LTL-8367A 687479 E 210-30 BC

CHA13/AM70 2840173 N 160-130 BC


2011 Charcoal 2062 ± 35 180 BC-20 AD
LTL-8374A 687995 E 120-30 BC

CHA9/GS011 2840347 N 20-90 AD


2011 Charcoal 1935 ± 33 40 BC–140 AD
LTL-8372A 687984 E 100-130 AD

CHA7/GS011 2840347 N 20-90 AD


2011 Charcoal 1933 ± 33 40 BC-140 AD
LTL-8370A 687984 E 40-140 AD

Tab. 3 – Description of soils and dune sediment. Tab. 3 – Description des sols et des dépôts dunaires.

Soil Dune sediment

- Massive structure - Sorted medium size and fine yellow sand. Possibly dust.
- Cohesive sand (carbonates), blocky peds - Particles of red shale
- Colour: grey to light brown - Dipping layers on lee face of dunes. Parallel and cross-bedded structure
- Thickness: 10-30 cm - Nodules of carbonate
- Oxidised spots (iron and manganese) - Rare potsherds
- Potsherds, shells, charcoal, ash - Ancient dune deposits (ca 1000-ca 100 BC) are consolidated by carbonates
(precipitation of carbonates related to irrigation); dunes dated early
Roman are made of loose sand

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Construction and deflation of irrigation soils

Photo. C. Caputo.

Fig. 9 – Photo of a 3 century canal on top of yardang GS001.


rd
Fig.  9 – Photo d’un canal du IIIe siècle ap. J.-C. au sommet du yardang
GS001.

chronological gap between the Late Ptolemaic and the early Roman of the yardang, was dated from 180 cal. BC to 20 cal. AD (LTL-8374)
period is due to the deflation of the top of the yardang. (tab. 2). The top of the unit has been eroded by the wind.
Excavated into yardang GS001, a short canal reach has been • The visible section of yardand 72 displays well sorted and
preserved (fig. 9). It may have been fed by a nearby well providing laminated silt (fig. 7). No charcoal was found in the basal unit, whose
water extracted by humans, i.e. spring mound AM25. This canal top was eroded. The upper unit was dated from 390 to 200 cal. BC
has a trapezoidal shape, rims made of cohesive sediment (compact (Cha 15, LTL-8375) (tab. 2).
dark silt) and a high density of artefacts contrasting with sediments
almost deprived of artefacts outside the structure. The lower part 5.2. Spring mounds and wells
of the canal was dug into soils dated from 390 to 110 BC, and its
upper, currently truncated part may have been dug into a younger Spring mounds are conspicuous features throughout the larger
topstratum. The sediments collected in the fill were not analysed, site. A large feature, named AM25 (fig. 4, 10), 110 metres long north
however, based on the ceramic encountered, the canal seems to date to south and 75 metres wide east to west, has a central depression
mostly to the 3rd century AD. They are composed of jars painted with surrounded by rims towering 8 metres over the shale bedrock. It is
dark purple motifs on a white colour, and fragments of kegs from open to the east and the west with layers of sand dipping to the south
the same period. The material and these decorations are similar and criss-cross structures. The large central “hollow” was very
to pottery from Phase 2 in Douch (the Kharga depression). The probably dug out by humans and is potentially an area of ancient
rims of cooking pots found are similar in shape to the chytra type, spring activity whose natural characters may have been completely
however it is difficult to precisely date them. Small non-dated shells altered or destroyed. The eastern part of feature AM25 includes a
and charcoal were also visible in the section. The topography was cross-section named sequence GS022.
continuous and levelled enough for the irrigation canal to distribute A crust of consolidated sand protects the rim. The present surface
water to lower adjacent areas. is rich in iron oxides forming this crust, with coarse granules of
quartz, ceramics, brick fragments and shells. Granules of quartz are
5.1.3. Other yardang sequences included in the consolidated sand and on the soil at this specific
location. They were a component of the Mût shale extracted during
Several short sequences located on Figure 4 were surveyed and an early phase of well digging, then concentrated on the well rim
described. by deflation. This spring mound was active during the Antiquity
• In yardang AM66-67, two stratigraphic units were identified (ceramic fragments cover the entire surface of the mound rim,
before sampling (fig. 7). Their upper part had been eroded by the as well as part of the base to the south). Fragments dated from
wind. The lower unit is made of consolidated dune sand. Sample the Old Kingdom (2400 to 2200 BC), similar to the 6th dynasty
Cha 10 (tab. 2) allowed dating its base from 1050 to 840 cal. BC specimens found in Balat, were observed. One fragment belonging
(LTL-8373). to a so-called “Maidum” carinated bowl was also found and could
•  AM69 is a 3.70 metres dune laying directly on the Mût shale. It have been imported from the Memphite area (4th dynasty or 2613 to
is made of homogeneous well sorted sand. Charcoal 12 could not 2494 BC). There were also fine wares, storage jars, beer jars, large-
be dated. diameter pot stands and conical bread moulds. Many small shells
•  Sequence AM70 comprises one stratigraphic unit composed of were also found on top and around the rim surrounding the spring.
loose sand (fig. 7). A charcoal (Cha 13), sampled 30 cm below the top To date, we have not found any evidence of irrigation soils dating to

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Jean-Paul Bravard et al.

Photo. J.-P. Bravard.

Fig. 10 – Photo of spring mound/well AM65 dated Old Kingdom and dug Fig.  10 – Photo de la butte artésienne et du puits GS022 datés de l’Ancien
later. Empire et creusé en puits par la suite.
View from the south with a small yardang in the foreground and the spring mound/ Vue prise depuis le sud avec un petit yardang au premier plan et une butte artésienne
well in the background. Red shale on the top of the rim corresponds to Roman digging. à l’arrière-plan. Les schistes rouges correspondent au creusement d’un puits romain.

the Old Kingdom around this spring mound and in the Trimithis
area. If they existed, they were probably destroyed by deflation
before the formation of the oldest soils in sequence GS001, dated
from the 9th century BC onward. We cannot yet explain the long
chronological gap existing between 2200 BC and the 9th century BC.

5.2.1. Sequence GS022

GS022 (fig. 7, 11) is located on the eastern rim of spring mound


AM25 and is capped by a thick cover of blocks of red shale. The shale
deposit, rich in ceramics (too altered to be datable), is visibly related
to the digging of the former spring mound.
•  The lower unit (III) is composed of sand with layers of silts and
particles of shale. It was not dated.
•  In the middle of the sequence, a 50 cm thick unit (II) is composed
of layers of cross-bedded sand and silt, sloping 20° to the south. It
was dated from 510 to 200 cal. BC (see Cha 5, LTL-8368) (tab. 2),
15 cm above the bottom of the unit. Charcoal 5 was probably
transported by the wind.
•  On top of the sequence, a 20 cm thick unit (I) is a light, poorly
consolidated brown soil, with blocky peds, shells and potsherds,
covered with coarse granules of quartz or concretions of silica.
A charcoal (see Cha 4, LTL-8367A) (tab. 2), sampled very close to
the top of this unit, made it possible to date this soil from 350 to
30 cal. BC. The top of the soil includes potsherds concentrated by
deflation.
•  The anthropogenic layer of piled blocks of red shale, consolidated
sand and eroded potsherds covers the sandy sequence. Charcoal 14
Drawn by S. Gaillot. sampled in the upper part of the dune could not be dated.
Fig. 11 – Cross-section of site GS022.
Fig. 11 – Coupe stratigraphique du site GS022. 5.2.2. A site of pottery workshops (NE of the Trimithis tell)

On top of the tell, dunes, sand sheets and clay mounds are the
substratum on which most of the Roman-period settlement of
Trimithis was built. These natural deposits have been reached in
several trenches of Area 2.1 in the framework of the archaeological
project (fig. 4) and have been explored in depth in Street 2 (also in

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Construction and deflation of irrigation soils

Area 2.1), where a 3 metres deep and 1 x 1 metre large trench reached as testified by the small size of the blocks. Shale probably originated
a geological layer rich in organic material. The fossilised dunes start from re-dug wells (large “hollows” may be a better term) to gain
at an elevation of 135.97 metres asl and stop at 133.5 m asl, the layer access to water again. Sand sheets were deposited inside the blocky
of sand and clay mixed with organics starts at 133.5 m asl. However, structure by runoff (fig. 11) and micro-mudflows. The action of water
the trench could not reach the Mût formation that is clearly visible on is visible in the texture of deposits and cannot be attributed to post-
the surface in lower areas nearby. A small reddish iron-rich mound depositional processes. This means that the farmers had reached the
belonging to the Mût formation is located SW of Area 1, on one side water table and were excavating a mixture of sediment and water.
of a round depression and near a series of pottery workshops. It is A charcoal (Cha 9), sampled between blocks of red shale, was dated
likely that the reddish clay was dug out from deeper layers and used from 40 cal. BC to 140 cal. AD (LTL-8372, tab. 2). The comparison
for manufacturing the pottery during the late 3rd century to early between the dates obtained in the dune and in the shale cover
4th century AD, as suggested by the composition of the local vessels. suggests that people reacted immediately or very rapidly to the
Mounds of light-brown clay were and are also present in the area aeolian crisis described above.
and were used to manufacture mud bricks. This type of mound is
still preserved near the modern village of Bir Itnayn el-Arab and 5.3. Deflated area and irrigation structure
it was used to make the mud bricks of the replica house of Serenos.
GS011 (fig. 4, 7, 12A-B) is an ancient dune belonging to the Large tracts of land south of Trimithis, lying at a low altitudinal level,
substratum of the Roman settlement. Dune sand is covered with were managed during the Roman period. Two Roman necropolis
blocks of red shale. The top of the dune has been dated between were built in the southern outskirts of the city of Thrimitis, about 1
40 cal. BC and 140 cal. AD (Cha 7, LTL-8370). It has a dense cover to 3 metres below the level of the irrigated area dating back to the
of small badly eroded potsherds and may have served as a dump Ptolemaic period and the 3rd century AD (top of yardang GS001).
for the kilns present in the immediate vicinity. Above the sand unit Dunes made of loose sand cover an uneven topography resulting
is a layer of red shale buried by non-oxidized beige shale probably from deflation and sand accumulation. Tombs were erected on red
excavated from a lower area in the immediate vicinity. Blocks of shales and sometimes on top of low dunes after the erosion of the
shale were processed by workers working with small individual tools irrigation soils and sand deposition in a zone that we may consider

A – Photo: J.-P. Bravard / B – Drawn by S. Gaillot.

Fig. 12 – Site GS011. Fig. 12 – Site GS011.


A. Photo of drift sand covered by block red shale following the digging of a well. A. Photo de sable éolien recouvert par des blocs de schiste rouge après creusement d’un
B. Cross section of site GS011. puits. B. Coupe stratigraphique du site GS011.

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Jean-Paul Bravard et al.

as a former cultivated area (AM65, fig. 7). The necropolis have not is responsible for the high degree of sediment instability (Coque-
been excavated or surveyed yet, and therefore are simply dated Delhuille and Gentelle, 1998; Pietsch et al., 2010).
from the Roman Period. Our knowledge of this area is still based A limited number of exploitable sequences document the
on limited surface observations. The low topographic position of construction of historical sediments in Trimithis. Figure 7 presents
the Roman necropolis may be explained by intense deflation, which a graph of the most important dated sites. The most relevant
destroyed the fields built up since the Old Kingdom period, down result is the relative importance of dune sand in the cross-sections
to an unprecedented level, i.e. the level of the shale, except for some compared to the thinness of “soils” (sandy matrix incorporating
relict yardangs. potsherds, ash, shells, charcoal) in horizontal or inclined positions
A second canal was discovered on the shale floor, 3 metres below over cross-bedded or sloping sand sheets (lee faces of dunes). Soils
the 3rd century canal dug on top of yardang GS001. The lower and dunes are locally truncated by episodes of deflation. On the
canal, cemented with red clay (probably to stiffen the canal section basis of limited observations, “soils” probably correspond to areas
and reduce water losses) has been dated from the 3rd century AD frequented by humans and to irrigated fields located on an uneven
thanks to cemented potsherds found in its fill. Potsherds were not topography shaped by the wind. The sandy matrix of the soils and of
rounded and altered and were considered as in primary position to the underlying dunes point to their extreme porosity and probably
the difference of potsherds lying on the ground. The difference in to extremely high consumption of irrigation water. However, it is
elevation between the two canals means that a major deflation phase possible that dust deposition improved fertility of irrigated soils,
occurred during the 3rd century AD. enriching them in calcium and mineral-derived nutrients blown
East of yardang GS001, the ancient irrigated soils (deduced from the northern plateau (Nakase et al., 2014).
from narrow canals dug into the shale, lay directly on the shale The period of dune/soil construction was attributed to two main
bedrock and could also be dated from the 3rd century AD and post- periods spanning from 1050 to 840 BC (dune, AM66-67) and
3rd century AD. Potsherds of this period and from the Late Pharaonic from 350 to 30 BC (upper soil, GS022). The fact that an irrigation
times originating from the destruction of yardangs may be observed canal dated 3rd century AD was dug into the Ptolemaic soil on
in high densities on its surface. They probably originate from the top of yardang GS001 suggests that irrigation was practiced on
destruction of former soils of different ages. It is quite difficult to top of present yardangs during the Roman period, but we must
date the polygenic topography of this low area, considering that acknowledge that no clues of earlier irrigation have been found at
deflation has been active since the Roman period at least (fig. 6). this stage. We also have no evidence of any soils and fields over
Moreover, site GS016 (south of the site and not represented in yardangs dating back to the early Roman period, but they may have
Figure 4) displays a set of interesting features. A well was dug into been destroyed by deflation.
the red shale, probably into a former spring mound. Open to the Three ancient soils were dated to the Third Intermediate period
north, this well delivered water to a 2 metres wide irrigation canal. 1069 to 664 BC and to the beginning of the Late Period 664 to
The well and the still undated canal are located below the level 332 BC (tab. 2):
of the pre-Roman irrigation soils, which confirms that deflation - 2710 ± 55 yrs BP, or 980 to 790 cal. BC (Cha 1, GS001)
had eroded the fields before the digging of the well. The red shale - 2599 ± 36 yrs BP, or 840 to 590 cal. BC (Cha 6, GS001)
displays features of erosion by the wind and many potsherds are - 2527 ± 40 yrs BP, or 800 to 520 cal. BC (Cha 3, GS001).
scattered over the surface. Finally, the southernmost large spring These soils were observed in yardang GS001 and belong to most
mound was dug below a terrace with ancient Pleistocene spring ancient documented soils.
mounds characterised by iron concretions. Undated irrigation A phase of dune formation was dated from 2315 ± 42 yrs BP, or
canals delivered water from the spring mound. Consolidated silt 510 to 200 cal. BC (Cha 5, GS022), and from 2220 ± 33 yrs BP or 390
deposited on the canal sides helped to preserve them. to 200 cal. BC (Cha 15, AM72). This phase roughly corresponds to
the Persian and early Ptolemaic periods. No soil dating back to this
6. Interpretation: the construction and destruction of period has been found so far.
a landscape The most recent phase of soil formation was dated by three
charcoal samples from:
6.1. The formation of dunes and soils from the 3rd - 2186 ± 40 yrs BP or 390 to 110 cal. BC (Cha 2, GS001)
Intermediate (1069-715 BC) to the Ptolemaic period (332- - 2101 ± 35 yrs BP or 350 to 30 cal. BC (Cha 4, GS022)
31 BC) - 2062 ± 35 yrs BP or 180 cal. BC to 20 cal. AD (Cha 13, AM70).
This last phase is Ptolemaic in age and may extend to the Early
The type of soil observed in Thrimithis differs from classical soils Roman period. The end of this phase may be close to the most recent
as defined in pedology, such as the Neolithic dark soils studied in dates obtained in sites where dune sand was deposited, such as
Mar’ib Oasis (Yemen) dating back to the wet early Holocene from 40-140 cal. AD (GS011). This unit is the richest in ceramics and has
9000 to 6000 BC (Pietsch et al., 2010). In the Western Desert of a loose sandy texture. Shells of molluscs may indicate the presence
Egypt, “irrigation soil” or “anthropogenic irrigation sediment” of water. Thin layers of deflated red shale particles may be observed
refers to ancient practices and to a geoarchaeological definition in some places.
of layers rich in ceramics, charcoal and other artefacts (Haynes, This sequence of soil construction was interrupted by phases of
1983; Brookes, 1989a; Brookes, 1990). The presence of features aeolian erosion and sand drifting. It must be pointed out that the
related to organic activity is not relevant in this context due to dry sequences described above represent a net budget of deposition and
conditions. Moreover this type of soil frequently includes layers destruction phases, explaining a maximum relative elevation of ca.
of microlaminated sand of aeolian origin without any artefacts. 2 to 3 metres above the uneven bedrock topography. The relative
They correspond to periods of deflation and sand deposition in the importance of units may vary according to the site topography,
irrigated area, their origin being related to the deposition of wind- to the local importance of erosion by the wind and sediment
blown particles and to silt-rich sediment transferred by water over deposition, and probably to water availability.
the irrigated areas. Recent soils in Trimithis may be equivalent to the
aeolian sand and silts blown from dune fields in areas where aridity

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Construction and deflation of irrigation soils

6.2. From deflation to the digging of spring mounds during 6.3. The roman rural landscape from the 1st  to
the Early Roman Period (40 cal. BC-140 cal. AD) 4th century AD

The field study showed how difficult it was to maintain a rural and Some elements made it possible to describe landscape changes
probably irrigated area from the Late Intermediate to the Ptolemaic south of Trimithis, in the rural outskirts of the city. Evidence is
period due to the harsh constraints of deflation and drifting sand provided by the relative elevation of irrigation features and of
which shaped an ever-changing landscape. These constraints buildings foundations.
paid a significant role in the following period. Four sequences Roman Trimithis was built on an uneven barren area with
named AM65-AM69-AM70-AM71 and GS011 (fig. 4, 7) served to consolidated dunes, mounds of hard shale and flat lowlands, where
describe non cohesive sand deposits with the structure of mobile most of the wells supplying water were probably located. The head
dunes; however only AM70 and AM75 were dated. However, it is of one such well is visible at the elevation of 137.5 m asl, south-east
impossible to reconstruct the landscape during this phase of dune of Serenos’ house (see Area 2.1 in Figure 4). The area was already
shifting. The sand units observed are made of loose yellow sheets inhabited at least from the Old Kingdom onwards, but at present
of pure sand of variable thickness. Dunes do not have any artefacts it is not possible to know if it was only one settlement, how big it
inside the sand body, which suggests short aeolian episodes or the was and if it was continuously inhabited. Data collected by the
preceding abandonment of the areas. Potsherds present on top of D.O.P. survey and our observation at Trimithis would suggest the
the dune units may be related to a short phase of frequentation presence of different, probably small settlements and workshops
by local people or to agricultural practices. The topography was located north and west of Trimithis during the Old Kingdom. The
probably uneven because the dune landscape was associated with erosion and the accumulation of sand prevent us from a clear view
the process of deflation. of these older phases. The Roman-period settlement was thus built
Most of the ancient dunes have been destroyed by deflation, but preferentially according to an orthogonal orientation of streets and
some of them have been preserved thanks to a cover resistant to alleys, but also following the natural layout of the land. Even though
deflation. On site AM65 (a 2 metres high yardang), the top of the the maximum extension of the Imperial-period city is not clear yet,
sand unit is an archaeological layer (stones, potsherds) protected as far as could be ascertained in the excavated areas, some houses
from erosion by the fallen wall of a ruined mud-brick building from the 3rd century AD continued to be used in the 4th century AD,
(a tomb of the necropoleis?). Elsewhere, protection is ensured by while other buildings, e.g. a huge public bath, were demolished and
cohesive red-shale blocks dug into the shale substrate. Site AM71 replaced. Stratigraphies found in all the excavated areas testify to
and dunes GS011 and GS022 are also topped by blocks of shale, the absence of sand deposits between the different building phases
which have resisted deflation since the Antiquity. We suggest that in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD and this probably means that the city
these covers of blocks are located in the immediate vicinity of the was surrounded by fields, similar to today or even more extensively.
wells dug into less active spring mounds or close to dug-out spring Probably at the end of the 4th  century  AD and after its abandonment,
mounds buried by drifting dunes. These features look similar to the Trimithis was invaded by a field of sand dunes running from the
refitted spring mounds described by Bousquet (1996), which were north to the south, similar to present dune fields visible in satellite
widened and surrounded by 2 metres high artificial mounds. imagery. The city was covered to an elevation of 138 to 139 m  asl.
Spring mounds have discharged water from the Nubian aquifer for Most of the features standing above that elevation, both natural
thousands of years and Ball (1927) demonstrated that underground and man-made, suffered massive erosion. Mud-brick walls were
water comes from Sudan where infiltration of monsoon rains until eroded to the foundation and, in some places, for instance on the
6000 BC created a strong head. The level of the water table was temple hill, even lower. Only the very strong clay hills east and west
often close to the surface of the surrounding ground and the flow of the site maintained a considerable height. The accumulation of
was active through spring mounds. Such low places may have been pottery on the surface of the hills is all that is left of the houses once
the source of water for irrigation, watering spots for humans and standing on them. Most of what was lying below 138 to 139 m asl
cattle. Later, it was shown that, at the local scale, free groundwater has been preserved due to the massive silting of aeolian sand that
discharge created depressions in the piezometric surface of distinct, can still be observed today. Sand dunes west and south-west of
locally faulted, and folded aquifers (Lamoreaux  et 
al., 1985). the site, all above 139 m asl, still cover a substantial portion of the
Relative depletion of water by artesian free discharge resulted in inhabited area. Taking them into account together with the hills
the human reactivation of springs by removing sliding sediment covered with sherds and areas in between provides an idea of the
and sometimes digging wells flanked by log casing, thus further overall extension of the urban area of the Roman period that is twice
lowering the piezometric surface. In Amheida, the presence of as large as what is visible today on the surface.
several areas with shale caps proves that the digging was a rather We still do not know if the settlement was occupied continuously
common process, but we could date only one sequence of dune and from the Old Kingdom to the end of the 4th century AD. It is a
shale cover (40 cal. BC-140 cal. AD). The level of water inside the reasonable possibility, however we cannot determine the degree to
springs subsequently decreased until their decay (fig. 11-13). which it may have flourished in the various periods. The reasons in
Sudden and severe crises of wind erosion followed by phases of favour of a permanent settlement in this location can be found in the
deposition destroyed part of the irrigated land to such an extent that geography of the oasis and in the presence of good supplies of water
farmers and city dwellers had probably to recover access to water enabling agriculture to thrive. However, after being abandoned
by digging into the decaying spring mounds. Further work must be toward the end of the 4th century AD, the site was not rebuilt.
done to understand the nature of this crisis or of a series of crises The constraints that caused the abandonment of this area and of
throughout the area. several other settlements in the oasis must still be clarified and they
could be a combination of several natural and historical factors.
Other investigations are needed before coming to a comprehensive
conclusion.

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Jean-Paul Bravard et al.

7. Conclusion the amount of water available from spring mounds and wells and
consequently the wetness of soils and the capacity of irrigation soils
7.1. Irrigation soils correspond to a positive sediment to aggrade further and even to stabilize. In other words, a reduction
budget from the Pharaonic to the Ptolemaic periods in available water could compromise the ability to form new soil as
fast as old soil was lost to wind.
1) No early Holocene deposits corresponding to a playa shaped In other words, the fragility of soils may have increased until
during the wet Holocene were found in the vicinity of Trimithis. crossing the threshold of minimum wetness, exposing them to
Such deposits probably existed but we assume that they were severe deflation. As stated by Brookes (1989a), the change from
destroyed by wind erosion during the arid period, which followed spring-mound artesianism to wells and the use of saqyias lifting
the wet Holocene. devices drawdown and lowered water tables surrounding the wells.
2) The present yardangs are the relicts of a former, unstable These permanent cones reduced the available discharge, the wetness
complex of barren land, dunes and irrigation soils built up during of irrigated plinths, and paved the way for uncompensated deflation.
the phases of irrigated agriculture in an area prone to deflation. The increased sensitivity of drying irrigation soils to drought, wind
Active spring mounds, probably reactivated as wells by farmers and and deflation processes may have been the cause of the onset of a
city dwellers during the late occupation of the site, delivered water negative sediment budget. During the 3rd century AD, wells still
through canals. In line with previous studies, it is thought that the provided water to canals slightly higher than the present ground.
moisture created by irrigation practices and the roughness of the After its abandonment at the end of the 4th century AD, the city
vegetation cover may have triggered the construction of irrigated of Trimithis itself was covered by sand and the agricultural area
areas through the trapping of blown sand and the reworking of alternated burial under the sand and deflation down to the exhumed
sediments by farmers (Brookes, 1989a-b; 1993). However drifting Mût Formation.
sand buried soils and changed the microtopography of such places.
3) In Trimithis, the relicts of irrigation soils and active canals 7.3. Decaying ancient oases
linked to yardangs date to the Late Pharaonic, Persian and Ptolemaic
periods (from at least 840-740 BC to the 3rd century AD). Due to the Human settlements in association with irrigated land are places
lack of significant exposure, their detailed history will be difficult to where interdisciplinary studies may be conducted and, combining the
further document. Laboratory studies, such as micromorphology of approaches, provide new perspectives. The preliminary hypothesis
soils, chemical anlyses, archaeobotany, must be implemented in the is that each oasis provides a specific set of natural conditions for
future for understanding the composition and genesis of soils, and irrigation (size, water table depth, richness, and techniques of water
the type of agriculture practiced at different periods. control and duration of water availability in aquifers). Each oasis
4) In the surveyed cross-sections, deposits of wind-blown sand are may experience different external constraints (deflation, runoff)
greater than expected when compared to El-Deir, in the Kharga oasis and demonstrate different abilities to recover depending on the
(Bravard et al., 2016). Irrigation phases were separated by periods of resilience of the societies living in each environment. Types of
deflation responsible for the shaping of dunes and for discontinuities aquifers and recharge models may differ between places due to
truncating the depositional sequences. The cumulative 2 to complex structural controls and wind action, explaining distinct
3 metres thick complex of dune/irrigation soils present at the end histories or functioning.
of the Ptolemaic period was the result of a net sedimentary budget On the eastern side of the Kharga depression, the ancient town of
including positive and negative events (aggradational and erosional Kysis was active from the 3rd to the 5th century AD, developing an
phases). The sediment budget benefited from spring mounds able oasian-type agriculture based on wells and qanâts. In the so-called
to deliver enough water to help trap blown sand and limit erosion. “Douch model”, the early depletion of artesian wells during the
5) Several distinct areas of irrigation soils may have existed Roman period was compensated by digging qanâts to collect water
simultaneously around the Trimithis kom, the irrigation soils from water tables perched in structural landforms (Bousquet and
being the product of distinct spring mounds flowing from different Reddé, 1994; Bousquet, 1996; Bousquet and Robin, 1999). Kysis
altitudes over an uneven topography. We suggest a series of semi- was able to overcome a climatic degradation between the 3rd and
independent areas dependent on water availability. 4th centuries AD, that is assumed to have occurred in light of the
redevelopment of qanâts. Kysis was then abandoned during the
7.2. Increased threat of sand from the late 1st century BC to 5th century AD due to its incapacity to resist the encroaching sand
the abandonment of Trimithis (4th century AD) (Bousquet, 1996).
North of Kysis, the el-Deir oasis experienced another set of natural
Another phase of strong aeolian activity of indeterminate duration constraints including deflation and episodic flash floods. The
occurred between 30 cal. BC and 140 cal. AD. The Ptolemaic depletion of the spring mounds which once ensured the prosperity
cultivated topsoil was scalped and overlain by sand dunes. These of this oasis was compensated by digging wells (qanâts not being
processes resulted in net erosion because most of the area was possible due to specific geological characteristics). Destructions
lowered. Vertical erosion was followed by the development of the were severe during the Late Ptolemaic period (deflation) and during
Roman necropolis standing below the Ptolemaic level of the soils the 3rd and 4th centuries AD (flash floods). Human activity was
studied in the SW section of the area, as testified by a 3rd century maintained, despite the abandonment of agriculture during the 5th
irrigation canal active on top of yardang GS001. Another severe and 6th centuries AD, through the development of trade between
phase of deflation was dated to the late 3rd century AD, as testified by Hibis and the Nile valley (Bravard et al., 2016).
the construction of a low canal on the Mût Fm shale. These phases In the Dakhla oasis, Trimithis could be a case of progressive decay,
of deflation may have been similar in function to previous phases with society facing the constraints of the northern wind (deflation,
which occurred between the Pharaonic and Ptolemaic phases, drifting sand) in a context of declining water availability (shift
however increased activity of northern winds pushing sand dunes from active artesian springs to wells). The change may have been
to the south may also have affected the site. progressive and a threshold may have been crossed during the early
The progressive depletion of artesian pressure probably reduced Roman period due to increased water scarcity. Digging of wells may

320 Géomorphologie : relief, processus, environnement, 2016, vol. 22, n° 3, p. 305-324


Construction and deflation of irrigation soils

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DOI : 10.1002/gea.20004

Annex 1

Charcoal samples selected for radiocarbon dating were analyzed holders of the AMS system where the 14C/12C ratio was measured for
by AMS (Accelerator Mass Spectrometry) at the CEDAD each sample by comparing the 12C, 13C currents and the 14C counts
(Centre for Dating and Diagnostics) at the University of Salento obtained from the samples with those from standard materials
(Calcagnile et al., 2004). supplied by IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) and NIST
The samples to be dated were submitted to a preliminary (National Institute of Standard and Technology).
screening procedure using an optical microscope to identify and Measured 14C concentrations were then used to calculate, using the
mechanically remove macro-contaminants. The samples then radiocarbon exponential decay law, the conventional radiocarbon
underwent chemical processing to remove exogenous contaminants ages after correcting them for the machine and chemical processing
and convert the sample material to a form suitable for measurement background and for isotopic mass fractionation by using the d13C
with the AMS system (Calcagnile et al., 2004). Chemical processing term measured with the accelerator (Calcagnile et al., 2005). For the
of the sample consisted of alternate alkali-acid-alkali (AAA) attacks estimation of the measurement uncertainty, both the radioisotope
which resulted in the production of a purified material which was counting statistics and the scattering of the data were taken into
dried in an oven, sealed under vacuum in quartz tubes together with account. The larger of the two was conservatively given as the final
copper oxide and silver wool, and then reduced by combustion to margin of error.
carbon dioxide at 900°C for 8 hours. The carbon dioxide was then Conventional radiocarbon ages were then calibrated to calendar
cryogenically purified and finally converted at 600°C to graphite ages using the last, internationally accepted calibration curve
using hydrogen as the reducing agent and iron powder as the (INTCAL13) for terrestrial samples (Reimer et al., 2009) and the
catalyst. The graphite was then pressed into the aluminium target software Oxcal vers. 4.2 (Bronk Ramsey and Lee, 2013).

Géomorphologie : relief, processus, environnement, 2016, vol. 22, n° 3, p. 305-324 323


Jean-Paul Bravard et al.

Version française abrégée

Depuis la fin des années 1970, les travaux archéologiques réalisés ces derniers sont sculptés dans des formations sableuses riches en
dans le cadre du Dakhla Oasis Project (D.O.P.) ont été complétés par artefacts et contenant des sols très peu évolués (ils ne remontent pas
des études portant sur le paléo-environnement régional (Brookes, à l’Holocène humide à Amheida). Les yardangs étudiés présentent
1983, 1989a, 1993) ; elles ont été menées à l’échelle de la Dépression tout ou partie de trois unités sédimentaires bien identifiables sur
de Dakhla (Désert occidental égyptien par 25° lat. N ; 29° long. E), le terrain, en particulier du fait de discontinuités érosives liées à la
une zone basse située au pied de la cuesta formant la limite sud du déflation et d’apports dunaires. Les unités les plus anciennes (riches
Plateau Libyen et bénéficiant de la proximité de la puissante nappe en particules schisteuses) ont été datées entre 1050-890 cal. BC et
artésienne du grès libyen. 800-520 cal. BC par les charbons contenus dans des sols séparés
Cette étude porte sur un site localisé dans la partie occidentale de par des niveaux sableux ; les unités médianes (sable et silt compacts
la Dépression, l’actuelle Amheida (l’antique Trimithis), occupée de à stratification horizontale) ont été datées 510-340 cal. BC et 390-
l’Ancien Empire (de 2700 BC environ à la fin de l’époque romaine 200 cal. BC ; les unités supérieures (structure sableuse non cohésive,
(IVe siècle AD). C’est aujourd’hui une butte de type tell entourée richesse en céramique et en mollusques d’eau douce) ont été datées
d’une mosaïque de champs irrigués, de terrains nus balayés par le entre 390-160 cal. BC et 180 cal. BC et 20 cal. AD.
vent du Nord, de dunes mobiles et de quelques yardangs sous un En plusieurs points il a été possible d’observer des dépôts de blocs
climat hyperaride (moins de 5 mm de précipitations annuelles). schisteux reposant sur des sables dunaires dépourvus d’artefacts ;
Les fouilles archéologiques, réalisées depuis 2004 à Amheida, ils ont été interprétés comme des déblais de creusement de puits
documentent un urbanisme discontinu dans le temps ; elles ont consécutifs à une phase d’invasion dunaire sur le site ; ces déblais
montré que les bâtiments de brique crue ont été affectés par les ont été datés de la période romaine (40 cal. BC à 140 cal. AD). Des
processus éoliens (Davoli et Kaper, 2006 ; Davoli, 2012). Deux dépôts sableux ont été découverts dans l’ensemble des structures
récentes missions de géoarchéologie ont été effectuées à l’invitation bâties de Trimithis. La preuve archéologique est apportée de
du Pr R. Bagnall, responsable du projet de l’Université de New-York, l’existence d’un canal du IIIe siècle AD au sommet d’un yardang ;
et du Pr P. Davoli, responsable de la fouille du site d’Amheida ; elles comme un canal de même âge, daté par la céramique (mais
ont permis d’approfondir la connaissance des ressources en eau, de postérieur), est creusé dans les schistes du substratum sous-jacent,
l’irrigation et de la formation des sols localisés autour du site urbain. une période de déflation intense en est déduite. Elle signifie que
La géologie régionale présente une structure tabulaire à pendage le périmètre agricole a été refondé à une altitude inférieure après
S-N. Le plancher de la Dépression est constitué des grès de la la crise érosive. Les canaux du IIIe siècle AD étaient certainement
Formation de Taref formant un aquifère surmonté par des schistes alimentés par des puits et non plus par l’artésianisme.
de la Formation de Mut. Les accidents mineurs de la structure Cette étude a montré les faits suivants : i) les anthrosols, formés de
(plis et failles) expliquent les montées d’eau artésiennes qui ont sable dunaire et de niveaux peu évolués, sont datés au plus tard du
formé des petites buttes sableuses (spring mounds). Si ces dernières début de l’époque romaine. Le bilan net de construction/déflation
sont aujourd’hui inactives, le niveau de la nappe s’étant abaissé, n’excède pas 3  m  ; ce bilan positif doit sans doute à un fonctionnement
l’artésianisme fut actif au Pléistocène et pendant l’Holocène humide des sources artésiennes qui fournissaient l’humidité ; ii) Elément
(Adelsberger et Smith 2010). Le climat s’est asséché après 6500 BC nouveau, l’étude montre la destruction des anthrosols par le vent,
(Haynes, 2001 ; Bubenzer et Riemer, 2007 ; Kröpelin et Kuper, 2007) l’assèchement les ayant fragilisés et exposés à la déflation durant
et les ressources hydriques se sont progressivement épuisées de par le l’Antiquité. L’efficacité apparente du vent et de la mobilité dunaire
fonctionnement de l’artésianisme naturel et du fait de l’écoulement prend plus d’importance à partir de la fin du Ier siècle BC, et les sols
de la nappe des grès nubiens vers le Nord. Les populations se sont du périmètre agricole connaissent un bilan négatif avec deux phases
adaptées de diverses manières, notamment en se sédentarisant en d’érosion majeures placées à la fin de l’époque ptolémaïque et au
bordure des lacs et à proximité des sources (Caton-Thompson et IIIe siècle AD.
Gardner, 1932). Les apports de cet article permettent de considérer Le site d’Amheida aurait connu une prospérité continue jusqu’à
sous un angle nouveau la question des relations existant entre une son abandon dans l’Antiquité tardive et des facteurs sociétaux
cité antique du désert et sa survie dans un environnement de plus expliqueraient le déclin de Trimithis. Cette étude révèle une histoire
en plus contraignant. environnementale marquée par des crises de sécheresse dans
Le travail de terrain a consisté à relever des formes et des coupes un contexte d’épuisement progressif de la ressource en eau qui
stratigraphiques et à collecter des micro-charbons pour datation. fragilise les sols dans un milieu hyperaride. Si les facteurs sociétaux
Les principaux résultats sont les suivants : i) La pratique de conservent tout leur pouvoir explicatif, cette étude suggère que ce
l’irrigation semble attestée depuis l’Ancien Empire. Elle a permis la site révèle une réduction croissante de la résilience dans une société
fixation du sable et la formation de sols (des anthrosols ici qualifiés frappée par la diminution des ressources hydriques ; cette évolution
d’“irrigation soils”). Une des formes les plus anciennes étudiées est négative créait une contrainte forte lorsque le site était affecté par
une source artésienne recreusée en puits (GS022) et datée de l’Ancien la mobilité dunaire, ce malgré le creusement de puits. Le modèle
Empire (2400-2200 BC) par la céramique, mais sans sols associés. ii) d’Amheida-Trimithis est finalement confronté aux modèles de
Les coupes sont naturellement dégagées sur les flancs de yardangs Douch (Bousquet, 1996) et du Deir (Bravard et al., 2016), deux oasis
(formes de 2 à 4 m de haut allongées dans le sens du vent dominant) ; de la Dépression de Kharga abandonnées au Ve-VIe siècle AD.

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